‘The Pact’ (‘El Pacto’): Film Review

Courtesy of Sony Pictures International Productions
Be careful what you wish for.

The multi-garlanded Spaniard David Victori makes his feature debut with a dark psychological thriller starring Belen Rueda (‘The Orphanage’).

The best Spanish horror — The Others and The Orphanage, say — is able to weld the stylish and the smart with real psychological depth. Starring Belen Rueda, reprising her terrific performance as the terrified mom in The Orphanage, David Victori’s intense, unsettling debut The Pact, a story of a mother’s fight to save her diabetic daughter’s life, is elegant, very atmospheric and cleverly worked out, but, given its subject, it surprisingly fails to deliver the emotional connections that could have taken it to the next level. Commercial prospects in Spanish-speaking territories look solid for a classy item that’s stronger on style than substance.

Lawyer Monica (Belen Rueda) and detective Alex (Dario Grandinetti) are the separated parents of diabetic Clara (Mireia Oriol), who early on falls into a coma from which there’s only a small chance she will emerge. Via some roundabout plotting involving Fran (Jordi Recasens), Monica meets the mysterious Santero (Patxi Santimaria) in an abandoned warehouse. Santero informs Monica that he doesn’t want her money, just her worst nightmare.

Essentially, Clara’s life will be saved if Monica kills someone else — this is the Faustian-inspired (and B-movie inspired, and there’s nothing wrong with that) pact of the title. When Clara does in fact recover, the film shifts into supernatural territory involving the regular appearance of a rather attractive albino spider, though the dynamics behind these eerie goings-on remain as murky for the viewer as they do for the characters.

From now on, Monica’s life becomes the hell of which the movie’s marketing makes so much, involving several situations where she’s faced with the moral dilemma of saving a life or not. One of these features a wonderfully shot car crash at its aftermath. The persecution of Monica by the car's disturbed passenger played by Antonio Duran (Morris) makes her life more hellish than it already is. Events pile up with sometimes implausible speed, but then again The Pact sets out to be the kind of movie that's happy to sacrifice some credibility as it goes in search of the next thrill.

The twisty plotting and relentless pacing are suspect, and it’s a little too reliant on cliche — surely in the 21st century the time has come for some sort of embargo on sands running through an hourglass, while the sudden unexplained jump-scare power-cuts are laid on just too thickly — but it can’t be faulted on its tech bravura or on its lead performances.

Rueda in particular has acquired a reputation among international horror fans for the reliably high quality of her horror and suspense work, which includes movies like Julia’s Eyes and The Body. Her terrified mom turn here is draining to watch in its urgent nervousness, and can be seen as an extension of Rueda’s Orphanage role, with Monica’s guilt about Clara the psychological driver that pushes her further into darker and darker areas. When she tells Clara that “everything I have done, do or will do is for you,” there’s the interestingly creepy suggestion of a darker, more complex side to Monica’s character, but the script never really goes there: The viewer observes her plight with horror, but never really feels for her.

Further work at the scripting stage on the mother-daughter relationship would also have given the film a greater emotional depth: Clara is too much the passive, unwilling victim of her mother’s unwanted attentions, and there’s no sense of any real love between them (the maternal bond is the foundation on which, crucially, both The Orphanage and The Others are built). Grandinetti as the buttoned-down, hard-bitten cop Alex, fighting to bring his broken family back together again, is similarly strong. But the the rapid forward momentum of The Pact means that neither of these fine leading actors is able to extract much nuance.

Technically, this is is very strong fare, with up-and-coming DP Elias M. Felix opting for dark, oppressive tones throughout — sometimes indeed a little too dark. The camera movement is often interestingly risky.

Production companies: Ikiru Films, 4 Cats, Sony Pictures International Productions, El Pacto
Cast: Belen Rueda, Dario Grandinetti, Mireia Oriol, Antonio Duran (Morris), Carlus Fabregas
Director: David Victori
Screenwriters: Jordi Vallejo, David Victori
Producers: Edmon Roch, Jordi Gasull, Victoria Borras
Director of photography: Elias M. Felix
Art director: Patrick Salvador
Costume designer: Patricia M. Felix
Editors: Guillermo de la Cal, David Victori
Composer: MIquel Coll i Trulls
Casting director: Anna Gonzalez
Sales: Sony Pictures Entertainment

105 minutes